How to Play Workplace Poker

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jul 02, 2016

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, they are not.”
Unknown (though some say Manfred Eigen or Albert Einstein)

I have never played poker. Over the years I have heard terms like “straight poker” and “stud poker” and “draw poker” but if you asked me to describe them, I would have no idea what to say. As a child, our family never played any card games and certainly nothing that would involve gambling. To this day, Evie doesn’t even let me shuffle the cards for the board game Sorry. 

I do know that poker is a family of card games that involve gambling. And one of the intricate parts of playing and winning each hand, and ultimately the whole game, is the combination of the players’ cards, some of which remain hidden until the end of the game. Good poker players evidently know how to play the game under the game. Hence the term “poker face” is a necessity.

You can imagine, then, my intrigue when I came across a book by Dan Rust titled “Workplace Poker: Are You Playing the Game or Just Getting Played?” According to the cover of the book, “This book will help you recognize your own blind spots and learn to fix them; learn about ‘corporate anthropology’ and complex human relationships in your work environment; accept full responsibility for your own career missteps and failures, then develop action plans to turn them around; and master authentic self-promotion without feeling that you’re bragging.”

I bought the book and after reading it I found within it a wealth of practical leadership insights. Rust gets extremely practical with his insights. For example, he says, “If you don’t read people well, you’re climbing up a wobbly career ladder. Blindfolded.” Some people say they don’t have time to “read people” or it is hard for them because they are not “mind readers.” 

According to Rust, unless we learn how to read people well, we will never succeed in the workplace. And the “ … simplist, and sometimes most difficult step is this: just take the time to pay attention. … listen to a colleague and try to discern what’s not being said, or the message under the message.” 

I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled “Fuel Your Fire.” John Steinbeck said, “A sad soul can kill you quicker that a germ.” Rust identifies four energy sources without which it is almost impossible to be successful: emotional energy; aspirational energy; physical energy; and mental energy. Growing them will grow any career. 

This book does have big ideas to enhance our leadership influence but I was more impressed by some of the author’s simple suggestions. He advocates for “bright eyes and a brighter smile.” Too often we don’t even make eye contact with our colleagues or we rarely smile at them.

Also, be careful how you look. When he says “dress a step up,” you “always dress just a little better than your peers. Look to the people one or two steps above you and emulate their attire, as long as the difference is not too dramatic.” And, always “reject business casual.” 

Some of Rust’s ideas can, at first, seem a bit superficial but the more one considers them, the more understandable is the title of his book. In his Introduction, he even says, “Just to be clear, ‘Workplace Poker’ is not a compilation of manipulative, conniving, or backstabbing strategies … and it is not just about a theoretical approach.” He bases them on “real-world observations and experiences over more than three decades of work in a broad range of businesses.” 

I guess that’s why Charlie Ergen said, “Poker is a game where you don’t have to have the best hand to win. Poker is really reading other people and reading human emotion, which certainly comes into play in business.” And, I would add, all of life’s complex human relationships. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President Emeritus of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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Twitter and Instagram: @DrDonMeyer